History Lesson

04.27.14

Who Really Put the Pope in Charge?

Catholic tradition claims that the pope’s authority extends directly back to Saint Peter. But a new book argues Peter never even set foot in Rome.

Everyone loves Pope Francis. The statement is at this point so banal that it makes you want to stop reading here. Forget Time and Rolling Stone; President Obama is a Francis fan-boy. But if Francis’s popularity is rooted in his down-to-earth humility and man-of-the-people mentality, his authority is rooted in his position as occupant of the throne of St. Peter.

Francis himself knows this. Last February, in an uncharacteristic display of hierarchical traditionalism, he told his new Cardinals that he—the Pope—will “tell [them] what the church needs.”

The Cardinals were also required to swear an oath of fidelity to “Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff.” Peter, of course, is the Apostle Peter, the Galilean fisherman who, according to tradition and official Catholic teaching, became the first Bishop of Rome and the “rock” on which Jesus founded his church. It is precisely because the Pope—as Bishop of Rome—is the heir to Peter that he has authority over other church leaders and bodies.

This weekend Francis canonizes two of his predecessors, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. John Paul II’s canonization been fast-tracked and John XXIII is being promoted despite the fact that his case is missing one of the two miracles usually required for canonization. When it comes to sainthood, popes don’t have to wait in line. That “in” with St. Peter really opens the pearly gates.

But what if Peter never went to Rome and was never the first Bishop of Rome? What if the idea of a Supreme Pontiff emerged hundreds of years after Peter’s death?

This is precisely what a new book by Fordham University theology professor George Demacopoulos proposes. In The Invention of Peter, Demacopoulos argues that Peter never visited the city of Rome, never founded a church there, and was not the first Pope. In fact, the very idea of Peter as the Supreme Pontiff and leader of a worldwide church is a much later idea that took its rise in the ecclesial politics of the fifth century.

The idea of popes as descendants of St. Peter is about controlling bishops, not churchgoers. This isn’t about the subjugation of the masses; it’s about commanding the loyalty of powerful elites.

The evidence for Peter visiting—much less dying in—Rome is pretty thin on the ground. It simply never comes up in the New Testament: the Acts of the Apostles, our first history of the Jesus movement, never mentions Peter journeying to Rome. And when Paul nervously greets the Christian community there in his Letter to the Romans, he never refers to Peter’s presence in the city. In the two letters attributed to Peter in the New Testament the author is said to be writing “from Babylon.” Babylon could be a euphemism for Rome or it could just be a metaphor for imagined exile.

The earliest references to Peter’s presence in Rome come from the second century and from texts that appear to have been written in Asia Minor. There are no first-century documents that explicitly state that Peter died in Rome. Much less any Christian authors talking about Peter and Peter’s heirs as commanding special power over the church.

While papal discourse starts to heat up over the second and third centuries, no one appealed to Peter as the rock of the church or the holder of the keys of heaven until the fourth. There was a bishop of Rome, to be sure, but there was no Supreme Pontiff, and it is difficult to concretely tie the legacy of these bishops back to Peter himself.

While it might sound like the stuff of which Da Vinci Code scripts are made, this is neither conspiracy theory nor contemporary scholarship reduced to a sensationalist tacky mess. The Invention of Peter is not the first book to question the role of Peter and the foundations of the Papacy. In a book that created quite a stir in Catholic circles in his native Germany in 2010, Otto Zweirlein also argued that Peter never went to Rome. And the shadowy origins of papal memoirs and biographies have already been exposed by U.K.-based scholars Kate Cooper and Julia Hilner.

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What Demacopoulos adds to our knowledge is an understanding of why the idea of a Supreme Pontiff emerged in the fourth century and how appeals to papal authority worked. And this is where things get interesting. Generations of Catholic schoolchildren may have learned that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 16, but early Christians didn’t give the passage second thought until the fourth century. It was only with Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century that the Bishop of Rome started to cite Matthew 16 as proof of Papal supremacy, and characterize himself as the “heir” of Peter.

The context in which Pope Leo invoked his authority as descendent of the Apostle was in conversations with other bishops. Pope Leo and, later, Popes Gelasius and Gregory the Great called themselves heirs of Peter when they were trying to control, diminish, or outwit other rival Church leaders. As Demacopoulos puts it, rhetorical claims of papal authority “were almost always born of insecurity and weakness.”

What this means is that the idea of popes as descendants of St. Peter is about controlling bishops, not churchgoers. This isn’t about the subjugation of the masses; it’s about commanding the loyalty of powerful elites. Good news for those lay media pundits, financiers, and political leaders who feel that Francis has really gotten carried away with this whole “caring for the poor” thing.

In truth there is more and earlier evidence for the authority of the bishop of Rome than The Invention of Peter provides. Christian leaders in second-century Gaul consulted the Bishop of Rome about ecclesiastical politics, and fourth-century schismatics often appealed to Rome for a decision. All the same, Demacopoulos is on solid ground when he writes that “so much of the way we think about the early papacy and the individual bishops of Rome has been shaped by later papal activists who were eager to spread Roman influence in their own period.”

Francis-loving Catholics who feel the foundations of the church shifting underneath their feet need not fear. When Francis invokes papal power he—like Leo and Gregory the Great--does so to control unruly church leaders. Just a few months ago, with the replacement of the “Bling Bishop,” he showed that he’s willing to rattle the keys of Peter in order to keep his bishops in line. So, whether or not the Roman Catholic Church is built on the rock of Peter, Francis’s traditional exercise of papal power means that he’s very much on solid ground.